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April 22, 2005

Another Forgotten War

Roy Meachum

Thursday's big news provided further details on Rome's new pope and the political problems of the powerful congressman from Texas. For readers more interested in sports: the Orioles lost and the Nats won.

Jammed down into one corner on those front pages where it appeared at all, that day's story from Baghdad reported: An assassination attempt on the interim prime minister failed; some 50 bodies floated up on the Tigris River; another 19 victims were found in a stadium; and Australian "contractors" apparently died in an ambush. In addition, mention appeared that several Americans might have died. The last item wasn't confirmed.

And I was reminded of a trip to England several years back.

The celebrated Winchester Cathedral serves the Royal Rifles as a chapel. I don't know that's an official fact. But touring the stately precincts I saw window after stain-glassed window dedicated to a regimental officer who gave his life for crown and country.

Without exception, as I recall, Victoria reigned when the now scarcely remembered young men died. They perished carrying what poet Rudyard Kipling termed "the white man's burden," which was, in fact, the cost of being the 19th century's super power.

An appalling number met their end, according to the cathedral windows, on Zulu spears in the conquest of Africa; they were joined in the ranks of their nation's "immortals" by contemporaries lost on India's plains, in Afghanistan's mountains, or the sands of Arabia.

Not until World War I bled Great Britain's manhood dry did London give up Mr. Kipling's burden, which lay around neglected for years. Finally, events after World War II rudely jammed these former colonies into the world's catbird seat. Americans' bloodshed in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq followed.

We can only wonder that if Franklin Delano Roosevelt had survived would these generations of young Americans have joined those memorialized in Winchester Cathedral. Probably not. His patrician status permitted him to dismiss Europe's imperial pretensions.

At every turn Mr. Roosevelt reminded allies in London and Paris they had no business exploiting other countries in the name of civilization or Christianity. He told them advances in education and technology had relegated empires to history's trash cans. Many of the so-called "natives" possessed political sophistication along with prestigious academic credentials.

Britain appeared to listen: After spluttering objections, principally 1956's Suez Canal disaster, the sun set over the sprawled empire that once stretched from the Far East to Deepest Africa.

France did not: The losing civil war over Algeria was accompanied by the failed attempt to regain rule over Indochina, despite American help.

Harry Truman's willingness to provide Charles de Gaulle ships to transport the Foreign Legion back to Saigon was matched by Dwight Eisenhower's enthusiastic contribution of "advisors" to fight communist northerners. John F. Kennedy's Green Berets and Lyndon Johnson's Bay of Tonkin resolution stripped away pretense.

The contest over Vietnam became openly America's "burden" roughly one decade after an uneasy truce quieted guns on the Korean peninsula, ending this country's first forgotten war. (Fortunately for our young and their loved ones, the CIA's invasion of Cuba failed at the Bay of Pigs; otherwise we could have wound up sacrificing more lives over long years in yet one more Lost Cause.)

The tragic irony of the current "forgotten war" in Iraq lies in the reality that Vietnam has never slipped from our national sight. Veterans, their families and the media have kept their vow that those lives should never have been "lost in vain."

At the least, they meant the lesson would not be forgotten. It was.

Once again our young, now women as well as men, are dying on foreign fields in what their elders designated a national necessity. We were told, as in Vietnam, America's survival was at stake.

Instead of John Foster Dulles' domino theory that might have resulted in world conquest by international communism, we heard about weapons of mass destruction that could kill millions, all innocent women, children and men. At the same time assurances were made our presence would provoke enthusiastic gratefulness; it didn't.

These are not after-the-fact thoughts. The last of my several public warnings was published March 19, 2003, the very day American tanks rolled over the Iraqi border from Kuwait. The charges piled on my head ranged from cowardice to a lack of patriotism.

Along with my betters, but not the country's most influential media, I publicly warned invading Iraq courted catastrophe, for both Americans and the unhappy people of that country.

Two years later the cost to humanity and America's stature as a bastion of human rights continues to escalate as our national attention strays further from the blood and misery all wars bring.

At the time it mattered most, the magnificent Vietnam monument on Washington 's Mall and its emphatic echoes in other communities, like Frederick's memorial park, made no more difference than those stained glass windows in Winchester's mighty cathedral. That's the real pity.

Yellow Cab
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